Historically, Koth had been a frequent target for Ikosian expansionism. The jungles that covered the region were dangerous to traverse and hard to clear, but they held valuable resources that couldn’t be found anywhere else. This made Kothic societies developed and wealthy enough that nobody would scoff at conquering them, yet left the region as a whole politically disunited and fragmented. Thus, Ikosian rulers often tried to bring the region under their thumb, reasoning that a bunch of bickering city-states and small kingdoms could not possibly unite together in time to repulse them.
But such initiatives were never successful. Koth was very far from Ikosian heartland, over rather inhospitable terrain, and fielding significant armies there was very hard. Additionally, the states of Koth proved quite willing to temporarily set aside their differences in order to resist Ikosian incursions into the region.
One of these unsuccessful campaigns, one that failed particularly dramatically, was the one launched by Awan-Temti Khumbastir. He was one of the more successful Ikosian emperors, but his success was built upon many small successes and the gradual prosperity of the empire under his reign. He had no grand feats to his name, and he feared his rule would be forgotten as soon as his corpse cooled. Thus, he set his sights on the one thing he felt would immortalize his rule for all time. By conquering Koth – something that his predecessors had repeatedly failed at – he would acquire the glory he craved and prove himself an emperor worth remembering.
It helped that Koth was being increasingly united by the rapidly growing League of Sawosi at the time, fueling fears that Koth might coalesce into a real competitor to the Empire if allowed to develop unchecked.
The campaign was a failure. Sure, the Ikosian armies had their successes in the beginning, and most historians agree that the war was a close one until the very end. But what does that matter when the last battle had been such a spectacular loss for the Ikosians? Frustrated by the slow progress of the campaign and by the very real possibility he would be returning home in failure, Awan-Temti assumed personal command of the army and led it straight into a trap the League of Sawosi had set up for him. The resulting battle was a total rout for the Ikosian army, which was then forced to retreat deep into the dangerous jungles that made up the interior of the continent. Most of the force perished there, picked off by diseases, wildlife or environmental hazards. This included Awan-Temti himself, who would vanish without a trace somewhere in the trackless jungles. His corpse and belongings were never found, and the uncertainty of whether he was really dead or just missing would cripple attempts of his successor to assume the throne for quite a few years, leading to a period of great instability and turmoil for the empire. In a strange way, Awan-Temti had actually achieved the fame he had sought when he went to Koth – the campaign of conquest would become a popular cautionary tale against arrogance and glory-seeking, his name never to be forgotten.
As for the League of Sawosi, they only had a short while to celebrate their victory. In order to fuel their war machine, they had taxed and arm-twisted their vassals and member states to such a massive extent that they revolted against the League the moment the Ikosians had left. Its armies devastated by the war and its treasury empty, the League was unable to respond to this challenge against its authority, and quickly fell apart. No other power would ever come as close to unifying Koth as the League of Sawosi had come before the war.
Zorian was getting a little off-track in his musings, though – the important thing was that Awan-Temti had been carrying quite a few imperial treasures on him when he disappeared, and this possibly included the imperial orb. This was not actually stated anywhere in official Ikosian history, which was very quiet about the fate of the orb, but several historians had noted that imperial chroniclers mysteriously stopped mentioning the orb in the aftermath of the campaign. It was likely that Awan-Temti’s successors had been unwilling to admit that one of the artifacts of the first emperor had been lost in that campaign and had done their best to quietly sweep the issue under the rug by ignoring the orb’s existence from that moment onward. In any case, attempts to locate Awan-Temti’s final resting place were not exactly a rare occurrence. The orb aside, the rest of the treasures he had been carrying were a tempting prize on their own. None of these attempts were successful, but Zorian was armed with something none of the previous treasure hunters had had in their possession – an infallible way to detect the presence of the orb when at a considerable distance from himself, regardless of any wards or other obstacles that may be foiling mundane divination.
“You have an in-built artifact detector,” Daimen summarized, giving him a jealous glare.
“Only in regards to a certain type of artifact, but yes,” confirmed Zorian smugly. “I still need someone to point me in the right direction, of course. I was originally going to ask you for help in that regard. I mean, you’re supposed to be this famous treasure hunter and all…”
“I am a famous treasure hunter,” Daimen pointed out.
“Right,” Zorian nodded. “So I figured that you might be able to help me narrow down the search region faster. Give me a few tips, connect me to the right people, maybe even get personally involved. If you’re already searching for the orb yourself, though, then everything just got a lot easier.”
Zorian was also reassured that someone had independently come to the same conclusion he and Zach had regarding the orb’s location. It meant they probably weren’t pursuing a fake lead.
Daimen gave him an indecipherable look, staring at him in silence for a moment. Finally, he slowly shook his head and spoke.
“I don’t know whether I love you or hate you right now,” he told Zorian. “On one hand, I have been stuck with this thing for months now, and it’s driving me crazy. My own team had begun to lose faith in me and had started complaining about wasting time on this. You swooping in with a solution in hand is exciting, but a part of me is incensed that somebody else is going to hand me a solution to this search. It feels like you’ve just stolen some of my thunder, you know?”
Oh, Zorian knew that feeling very, very well. But no matter, the really interesting thing was that Daimen’s own team was starting to mutiny. That explained a lot about what was happening, honestly. Such as why Daimen was currently inside the Taramatula estate instead of out there in the field, trying to find the orb as soon as he could.
“Is that why you decided to take a break from everything for a while?” Zorian asked. “To give your team a chance to calm down a little?”
“Ugh,” Daimen said, grimacing. “Sometimes you’re too perceptive for your own good, Zorian. Yeah, I wanted to keep going but they were being a big bunch of babies and complaining about sleeping in the jungle for several weeks and whatnot. Eventually we got into a bit of an argument and things got too heated for my liking, so I decided to give everyone some rest until I could rethink my approach.”
Hmm. From what Daimen had told him and Zach earlier, Daimen had had his team focus on one specific area of the jungle for a while now, since he was sure he’d had the right spot identified. Meaning that he was probably telling them to comb through the exact same area over and over again with no results. Zorian wasn’t surprised that they’d eventually lost their patience.
“Anyway,” continued Daimen, “give me a few days to gear up and organize everyone again, and we can go see if that detector of yours is as good as you say.”
“Wait, you’re taking your entire team with you?” Zorian said, frowning. “Why? Can’t we just pop over there quickly and check things out?”
“No, because it’s a huge area covered in dense, monster-infested jungle,” Daimen told him. “I can only teleport us to a few places there in a safe and reliable manner. The rest of the way we’ll have to walk, and I don’t feel safe doing that with only three people. I’m good, and I’m guessing you and Zach are too, but that’s not enough. Even the best mage is vulnerable to surprise attacks, and there is plenty of opportunity for that here.”
“I thought you said you had it narrowed down to one spot,” Zorian pointed out curiously.
“Well, relative to the huge swathes of jungle that cover the entire region? Yeah, I did,” Daimen said, a little defensively. “It’s still a lot of ground to cover, though. Why do you think I’ve been stuck on this for this long?”
Zorian was about to try and argue that everything would still be so much faster if it was just the three of them, but Daimen cut him off with a warning stare.
“Look,” Daimen said, “I know you’re on a time limit here, but be reasonable. It’s a dangerous land full of chameleon drakes, devourer mantises, howlers, thorn swallow flocks and gods know what else. Stumbling about in haste will see us all killed in a matter of hours. Besides… Orissa is going to kill me if I try to do this without her, and my team will be waiting for their turn right behind her. They were a part of this from the start. I would end up looking like a petty glory hound if I cut them out of the endeavor just before we claim the prize. I’m not wrecking my reputation like that. I’m sure you can spare a day or two on this.”
And that was how Zach and Zorian found themselves searching for the orb of the first emperor with Daimen, Orissa and 15 other people.
* * *
When Zorian had conceded to Daimen’s request to organize a full-fledged expedition for the orb, he’d known the whole endeavor was bound to turn into something of a spectacle. He had been absolutely right about that, but he had also completely misjudged what would cause it. He had thought the situation would gradually develop as he and Zach were forced to reveal their capabilities, piece by piece, during the course of the expedition. What actually happened was that Daimen outright told people that his little brother was secretly a master mage that rivaled him in skill, that Zach was similarly talented, and that the two of them had found some kind of imperial seal that let them detect other imperial artifacts nearby.
This wasn’t really what Zorian had had in mind when Daimen had told him that he would handle explanations and that Zorian needn’t worry about thinking up an excuse for his powers. He was tempted to ask Daimen why he didn’t tell them all about the time loop too, but he was afraid that the madman might actually go for it. How the hell did Daimen think this was a good solution to the problem?
Daimen also decided, without even bothering to consult with Zorian, that field deployment would happen via gate usage. Daimen would teleport to the target area on his own and then coordinate with Zorian to open a dimensional passage between the Taramatula estate (where the rest of the team would be waiting) and their destination. This would admittedly speed things up considerably, since not everyone in the group could teleport and there were a lot of supplies to transport as well… but it meant revealing to the whole group that Zorian could open gates. Daimen saying that Zorian was a master mage is one thing, and might be passed off as Daimen being biased in favor of his family, but a mage that could open gates at Zorian’s age naturally raised a lot of eyebrows.
Annoyingly, everyone seemed to quietly accept that Daimen could cast the gate spell, even though the only reason he had that capability was because Zorian had taken the time to teach it to him in this restart. He normally wouldn’t have bothered with that, but entering a Black Room had severed him from his simulacrums outside of it, dispersing them in very short order. This meant that he would have to keep sending simulacrums on a multi-day journey to Koth every time he emerged from one, which was annoying and quite impractical. As such, he decided to try and teach the gate spell to Daimen so he could open the gate to Koth with his help.
Fair is fair, though – it took only two days for Daimen to learn the spell, which was kind of amazing. He was already extremely good at dimensionalism, it turned out, having done the relevant shaping exercises and practiced with various types of teleportation. He had simply never found anyone willing to teach him the actual spell. Experts that could cast the gate spell were very rare and they didn’t share that kind of magic with others lightly. Not even if the person was a famous treasure hunter like Daimen.
In any case, Zorian was more than a little annoyed at how Daimen had handled the expedition preparations and thus decided to vent a little by showing off more than he had initially planned. He took four of his combat golems, which he had been mass producing in preparation for the assault on the Ibasan gate beneath Cyoria, and brought them with him to the expedition as his bodyguards. He probably didn’t need them, but the look on Daimen’s face when he stomped into the Taramatula estate with four golems in tow was priceless. It would also serve as a useful test of how his golems handled unfamiliar environments, he supposed.
Finally, the gate was opened and 19 people (plus four golems) entered the area that supposedly held the orb – a dense, shadowy patch of jungle known to the locals simply as ‘Dai Hurna’. Green Hell.
“A simple, but apt description,” one of Daimen’s team members told him. He was an older, weathered-looking man that served as the group’s main ward expert. Both in making and breaking them. “I’ve been in more dangerous places, but this one is near the top of the list. Try to stay near the center of the group. You and your buddy may be good, but some things can only be acquired with age.”
Zorian had been rather dismissive of the man’s words at the time, since the weathered old mage obviously did not know the full story about him and Zach, but he would soon learn there was some wisdom to be found in the old man’s words. The vegetation alone was a huge obstacle to exploring the area – there were no jungle trails crisscrossing the place, and the lack of sunlight made the area shadowy and dim, making it hard to spot dangers and navigate through the foliage. Zorian’s mind sense helped there, allowing him to sense the minds of predatory animals with relative ease, but not every danger had a thinking mind behind it. Some of the vegetation was mobile and predatory, for instance, but not especially intelligent. Zorian found that out the hard way when a tangle of jungle vines wrapped themselves around him and tried to drag him off into a pit when he got a little careless. Thankfully, his golem bodyguards managed to fight them off long enough for Zorian to clear his head and ignite the air around himself, forcing them to back off.
“You are lucky,” the weathered mage told him afterwards. “That fisher vine was a young one. Older ones grow razor-sharp thorns along their length. I’m sure you can imagine what would have happened to you if one of those got ahold of you. Though admittedly, older fisher plants are easier to spot than young ones…”
How embarrassing. Still, at least he knew that he had made the bodyguard golems correctly – they had reacted quickly and precisely to the crisis and managed to keep the plant from dragging him off without breaking his bones in the process. Making golems that knew how to hold back their full strength like that was pretty hard, Zorian had found.
Zorian conceded the man’s point after that and did not stray from the main group too much. Zach, on the other hand, did not let that incident scare him off. He wandered around the area freely, unconcerned with the various dangers crawling about the place. Zorian supposed that Zach had a good reason to be so fearless, considering he had literal decades of experience at adventuring in dangerous environments, unlike Zorian.
“Stop!” Zorian called out to the group. They all obeyed him. He knew that some of the people gathered here looked down on him because of his age and perceived nepotism, but nobody doubted his ability to detect danger anymore. He pointed at the area slightly to the right of the group. “Two chameleon drakes up ahead. Big ones.”
Chameleon drakes were the primary danger of the area. They were tough, agile, fast, could change the color of their hide so rapidly they were virtually invisible to the human eye, and routinely reached about 3.5 meters in length. They also sometimes hunted in groups, and had no compunctions about preying on humans. Green Hell was absolutely crawling with them for some reason.
Fortunately for the group, they had Zorian and his mind sense. Chameleon drakes might be a huge danger to most travelers, but to Zorian, their highly developed minds stood out like glittering stars in the night sky. The chameleon drakes were equipped with more than just speed, size and virtual invisibility; they were also quite intelligent by animal standards. On the verge of sapience, in Zorian’s estimation. Maybe even there, to an extent. This was no doubt a boon against most opponents, and did much to explain how they could give seasoned mages so much trouble, but it made their ambushes painfully obvious to a psychic of Zorian’s level.
Upon hearing Zorian’s warning, three people changed their stances and focused their attention on the area he indicated. One was Orissa, another was a young woman in bright blue clothes named Kirma and the third was a burly bearded man named Torun. These three were the scouts of the group, scanning their surroundings for dangers, obstacles and even the orb itself. A bit pointless, that last one, but being told that Zorian can simply detect the presence of the orb from a considerable distance seemed to have awoken some kind of competitive spirit in the three.
Each of the three had their own methods of gathering information. Orissa’s was through her bees, which she had scattered throughout the jungle around them. She carried on her back a huge backpack-looking thing that was actually a portable beehive. A constant stream of bees was constantly leaving the backpack under Orissa’s direction or returning to it to report their findings. It looked pretty heavy, but Orissa was carrying it with practiced ease. Zorian was unsure whether that was because Orissa was stronger than she looked, or if the hive was lightened in some way.
Orissa’s bees looked fairly mundane to Zorian’s amateur eyes. They didn’t have any special mental signature either – Zorian had initially thought that maybe they were unified into some kind of collective, like the cranium rats, but he found no evidence of that. He asked Orissa about them, and she admitted that the Taramatula couldn’t actually access the senses of their bees directly – instead they had some method of ‘talking’ to the bees and getting usable information in the process.
Zorian could tell that whatever method the Taramatula used to direct and talk to their bees, it wasn’t a structured spell. Orissa never did any chanting or gesturing, nor did she use any obvious spell aids. The process seemed to be almost like breathing to her, as evidenced by the fact she could direct her bees and talk to Zorian at the same time without any visible strain.
Kirma, the blue-clothed woman, was probably the most mundane of the three scouting mages. She was clearly using classical scrying and other divinations for her work. What was noteworthy about her was the divination compass she was using. It was a large, heavy looking, multi-layered contraption of brass and silver, its shape vaguely reminiscent of a lotus flower. The ‘petals’ were densely inscribed with mysterious glyphs and shapes that Zorian found hard to puzzle out through casual inspection.
The lotus device seemed to be highly effective, because Kirma was cycling through some rather complicated divinations with a speed that even Zorian would struggle to match.
Finally, there was Torun. Torun was constantly surrounded by a swarm of eyes that floated around him, twitching to-and-fro as something caught their attention. Each one was different, differing in size and internal structure of the eye from the others, and they looked very lifelike. To be precise, they looked like they had been extracted from corpses of various magical beings famous for their visual powers and then preserved in some fashion. Which was probably exactly what happened.
Zorian was about 90 percent sure that Torun couldn’t actually see through all of his eyes. In fact, he suspected that the man was limited to rapidly cycling between them instead of being able to process visual information from multiple eyes at once. There also seemed to be some severe distance limitations involved, because he never sent them too far into the jungle to scout things.
“You are once again correct,” Orissa remarked after a while. “If I may ask, how are you detecting the drakes from such a distance? Is this also the work of this mysterious imperial inheritance you stumbled upon?”
“No, it’s just mind magic,” Zorian said. He could tell most people suspected as much by now, so there was no need to be all secretive. A bunch of them had already cast some kind of mental defense spell on themselves when they thought Zorian wasn’t looking. “It’s something of a specialty of mine.”
“I see,” Orissa said, nodding. “I did suspect this was the case.”
“Hey, little Kazinski,” Torun called out to him. Zorian gave him an annoyed glare. That seemed to be the newest name Daimen’s group had given him, and he hated it. “How good is that mind magic of yours? Do you think you could snare one of those drakes and bring him over?”
Hmm. An interesting question. Chameleon drakes had considerable magic resistance, but it was nothing absurd. He just might be able to subvert one and puppeteer it for a while. However, after he did some subtle probing of their minds…
“No,” he said, shaking his head. “Not these ones, at least. They’re a bonded pair, and would never abandon one another. I could dominate one of them perhaps, but the other would follow after them and defend them.”
“Unnecessary fights will only slow us down,” Daimen stated. “Leave the drakes alone, Zorian. Torun has enough eyes to play with, anyway.”
“You can never have enough eyes,” Torun said. “But actually, I was after the beast itself this time. Chameleon drakes, much like their more mundane cousins, have the curious ability to move each of their eyes independently of one another and thus focus on multiple things at once. And they have four of them. I suspect I could learn… interesting things from them.”
“There is no shortage of chameleon drakes around here,” the withered old mage from earlier said. “The kid can get you one later. Preferably a young one, so it does less damage when it inevitably breaks out of its bindings and rampages throughout the camp.”
“Don’t even joke about that,” Daimen told him. “Anyway, we’ll just go around them, I g-”
“No need,” said Zorian. “They’re leaving. They’ve noticed that we’ve stopped walking for too long and found it suspicious, so they’ve called off the ambush.”
“Even better,” Daimen said, pleased. “Onward we go, then.”
After a few minutes, Zach stopped his wandering and approached him.
“I’ve thought of something,” he said. “What if you shapeshifted into a bird and simply flew around for a bit? I bet you could cover ground pretty fast that way.”
“I’d be dead in a matter of minutes,” Zorian said, shaking his head. He’d thought of that idea already and discarded it immediately afterwards. “The trees are pretty high here, and full of things that prey on birds. If I fly high enough to be safe, the ground would be beyond the marker’s detection radius. If I fly low, I probably get eaten by something.”
“Ah,” Zach winced. “Yeah, I didn’t think of that. And now that I think of it, the orb could easily end up being underground. Probably the best place to get some safety in a place like this.”
“That’s it!” Daimen shouted, hitting himself in the forehead. He had evidently been eavesdropping on their conversation, the jerk. “That’s what I’ve been missing all this time. Underground! We should have been looking for the damn orb underground instead of simply searching through the foliage! I’m such an idiot…”
After that, Daimen called for everyone to stop and make a base camp so they could discuss things for a while. With this done, the group quickly came up with a plan to perform some kind of geomantic ritual spell that would map out the basic shape of the underworld and narrow down their search on that basis. Honestly, Zorian was feeling a bit lost there – he had studied many things over the course of the time loop, but ritual spells involving more than one caster were not one of them. He mostly kept to himself while the rest of the group was setting up the ritual. He thought about striking up a conversation with his fellow time traveler, but Zach seemed to be trying to hit on Kirma, so Zorian left him alone for now.
Eventually, his solitude was broken when Daimen pulled him to the edge of the camp, where Orissa was already waiting, so that the three of them could have a conversation about something. Zorian already had a pretty good idea what this was about.
“You’re interested in my mind magic, aren’t you?” Zorian asked Orissa, giving her a shrewd look.
“Ah, well…” Orissa fumbled slightly. “Was I that obvious? Yes, I must admit the topic intrigues me.”
“It’s a personal secret,” Zorian told her bluntly.
“Zorian!” Daimen protested, jumping to his fiancée’s aid.
“But I might be willing to share some of it if Daimen agrees to honestly answer a few questions for me,” Zorian said, turning towards Daimen with a cheery smile.
“What kind of questions?” Daimen asked hesitantly.
“Questions about your own mind magic,” Zorian told him, his smile turning into a frown. “Questions like why you never told me I was a natural mind mage when I was a child. You had to have known, as a fellow natural mind mage, but you never said anything and left me to suffer alone.”
“W-What?” Daimen said, erupting into a burst of outraged laughter. “What the hell are you talking about?”
“I know you’re like me, Daimen,” Zorian told him. “I can sense it. And you can sense me as well.”
“No, I can’t,” Daimen protested, shaking his head vigorously. “Maybe I have a potential for the sort of mental bullshit you’re capable of, but I was never taught how to do that. They told me I was an empath and taught me how to turn the ability on and off, and that’s it, okay? I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“You’re saying you never noticed anything unusual about me?” Zorian asked, frowning.
“Well…” Daimen laughed nervously. “I noticed you were very easy to read… but hell, that could have meant anything!”
“You suspected the truth,” Zorian accused.
“Okay, so I did!” Daimen admitted. “But I couldn’t be sure, and why out myself for a mere suspicion? Especially to a brother that hated me and constantly got me into trouble! And really, what if it was true? What of it? If you really were an empath like me, that only made your actions more baffling and annoying.”
“What good is empathy like that with no control?” Zorian snapped at him. “I couldn’t even walk into a crowd without consequences! If you had taken a bit of time to teach me how to turn it off, or at least told me what to watch out for, I wouldn’t have been nearly as ‘baffling and annoying’ as you thought I was!”
The ‘discussion’ then degenerated into several moments of incoherent shouting and accusations before Orissa decided to act and stopped the argument by interposing herself in between them.
“Why don’t we all take a break for a moment and calm down,” Orissa said. Her bees synchronized their buzzing into an ominous hum. “You two are just talking past each other at this point. You’re making assumptions about each other that clearly aren’t true.”
Zorian scoffed, and almost snapped at her as well for trying to use such petty intimidation tactics on him. As if he were afraid of a bunch of bees. Still, she kind of had a point that he and Daimen would probably be better served to sit down and have a more… sedate discussion about the issue.
Daimen backed down even sooner, too smitten with Orissa to really stand up to her on the issue.
Having successfully defused the situation, Orissa then excused herself, claiming this was something they had to work out on their own and that she didn’t want to intrude. Daimen tried to protest and keep her there, but Zorian was grateful for her action and gave her a small nod as she left.
After a while, they started talking. As it turns out, Daimen had been empathic for as long as he could remember. His empathy was nothing like Zorian’s, however. Daimen’s empathy was weaker than Zorian’s had been, but far more controllable. He never suffered any headaches in crowds, and he could focus it on specific people at will. He realized early on that this ability was something unique to him, and that he could get far more out of it if nobody knew he had it. Thus, he kept it a secret from everyone. During his time in the academy, he had realized that he was an empath and secured himself instruction from an older empath who had taught him how to turn his ability on and off and some minor tricks to improve its sensitivity and selectiveness.
Daimen had never developed a proper mind sense, and couldn’t identify other Open people on sight like Zorian could. Even his empathy was crude and unsophisticated by Zorian’s standards.
“I suspected you might be like me,” Daimen said. “But then again, your actions were kind of strange for someone who could sense people’s emotions like I could, and that gave me pause. It never even occurred to me that your empathy might not work exactly the same as mine did. I still don’t understand what went wrong in your case when my empathy was such a boon to me. Why didn’t you say anything?”
“I did,” Zorian said. “Mother and Father said they would throw me in a madhouse if I didn’t shut up about that topic.”
“Ah ha ha…” Daimen laughed nervously. “I’m sure they were just joking around. You are way too sensitive about these things, Zorian.”
Zorian did not attempt to argue with him. Since their parents had always fawned on Daimen so much, he had a very skewed image of them. There was probably no helping that.
“Look on the bright side, though,” Daimen continued, trying to change the topic. “Since you had no preconceptions about your ability being empathy and thus limited to sensing emotions, you developed it into something far more amazing. I’m really jealous of that, to be honest. I didn’t know there was more to my ability until I met Orissa and the Taramatula.”
Hmm. If the Taramatula knew about Daimen’s innate mind magic talent, it was no wonder they were so understanding about Orissa wanting to marry him. He was famous, good looking, a mage prodigy and a natural mind mage? Truthfully, if Zorian was in Daimen’s place, he would be wondering if Orissa ever actually loved him or was simply going after him out of sheer opportunism.
“What did Orissa want to talk to me about, anyway?” Zorian asked.
“Oh. Well, I think you kind of already gave her an answer to that,” Daimen said. “She wanted to see if the mental ability you were using is the same one I have.”
“Ah, I see,” Zorian nodded. “The Taramatula are hoping it’s inheritable, I’m guessing.”
“Is it?” Daimen asked.
“Probably,” Zorian shrugged. “I’ve heard that abilities like that never just spring out of nowhere in a child, and it’s a bit of a stretch that the two of us have the same ability through luck alone. There is clearly some kind of inheritance thing going on, but it’s hard to say whether your children would be guaranteed to inherit it.”
“A lot of bloodlines aren’t guaranteed for children to inherit in their raw state,” Daimen said. “There are often artificial methods of ensuring inheritance involved, such as specialized potions and rituals. I doubt the Taramatula will care much.”
Any further discussion was interrupted when one of Daimen’s teammates came up to them to notify them the ritual was ready, and that they were only waiting for Daimen.
“Alright, we’ll continue with this topic some other time,” Daimen said. “For now, let’s focus on finally tracking down that damn orb.”
* * *
Like many places, Green Hell had an extensive network of underground tunnels running beneath it. Indeed, the local underworld was unusually complex, which helped explain why the area was so rich in ambient mana and why it was so abundant in dangerous wildlife. Even if one limited themselves to surface layers of the Dungeon, reasoning that Awan-Temti wouldn’t have wanted to descend too far, that was a lot of tunnels to cover. Thus, when Daimen’s team presented them all with a three-dimensional illusion of the local underground, Zorian could only stare at it in confusion. How the hell does this information help them narrow down their search? They would still have to walk through most of the area to cover all the tunnels reasonably close to the surface.
However, Daimen seemed to see something important in the floating image, because he soon pointed his finger at five places on the map.
“Here, here, here, here and here,” he said, poking the illusion in five different places, causing it to waver for a second before correcting itself. The spots looked completely random to Zorian. “We should focus on these areas to start with.”
“I don’t understand,” Zorian complained to Zach. “On what basis is he picking those five places?”
He had been hoping that Zach, having decades of experience in adventuring, would see something in Daimen’s choices that he missed. His hopes turned out to have been misplaced, however.
“No idea,” Zach told him. “That map is a total mess to me. He’s probably just bullshitting to make himself look more knowledgeable and experienced. I used to do that a lot when I ended up in charge of something. Never let your peons know you actually have no idea what you’re doing.”
“I can hear you two just fine, you know,” Daimen told them in an annoyed tone.
“I wasn’t trying to be quiet,” Zach pointed out.
Daimen didn’t reply. Instead he simply pointed them towards the nearest of the five places and motioned for everyone to start moving.
They were only halfway to the first spot when Zorian suddenly stopped. He had been spamming Key detection requests to his marker on a regular basis as they walked and now it actually reacted to something.
He found the orb.
“It’s here,” Zorian said excitedly.
“What? What’s here?” Daimen asked in confusion.
“The orb, of course,” Zorian said. Was he intentionally being stupid? “It’s here, I can sense it.”
“Do you mean it’s right below us, or…?” asked Zach, speculatively looking at the ground beneath his feet. Probably considering how best to excavate the huge amount of dirt between them and the nearest tunnel.
“No, but close,” Zorian said, pointing towards the north-east.
The group stared in the indicated direction for a while, as if that was going to help them see the orb through all the dirt and vegetation that was in the way.
“Is there anything notable in that direction?” Daimen asked Kirma. She was the one who kept detailed maps of the region, stored in her lotus device.
She quickly consulted her device for an answer.
“Actually… yes, there is,” she said hesitantly. “There is a chameleon drake nesting ground over in that direction. Because the place is so relatively prominent, it was one of the first places we checked.”
“I remember now,” Daimen said. “Chassanah insisted we check it out. Said that of course the orb is in the most dangerous place in the area, how could it be anywhere else?”
He pointed at the weathered old man who had advised Zorian caution earlier.
“And I was right, see?” Chassanah said. “We should have looked harder.”
“But I don’t understand,” Kirma protested. “We searched that place. There is nothing there.”
“We never actually set foot in the place, though,” Torun pointed out. “We just checked it out remotely.”
“We were thorough,” Kirma insisted. “There was nothing there. Awan-Temti was traveling with his entire entourage when he disappeared and was carrying a hefty supply train. We saw no evidence that a group of that size perished there.”
“It’s been a long time since Awan-Temti walked the earth,” Torun said, shrugging. “And it’s possible the fool got separated from his entourage and perished there alone. Maybe the orb is buried under some rock in one of the caves, and is protected against divinations.”
“I… suppose,” Kirma reluctantly conceded. She seemed unwilling to admit she may have missed the orb in her earlier search. She probably saw it as a blow against her personal pride.
A decision was made to make another attempt at searching the place. The group approached the nesting ground as close as possible without provoking the chameleon drakes into swarming them and then systematically scried the place.
The place was actually not that big. Neither the cenote itself nor the caves dug into its walls were connected to the Dungeon, so there was only so much ground that their spells had to cover. Despite that, no amount of divinations, remote scouts and other information gathering methods could find the orb. There was no evidence of any kind of treasure there.
“It’s definitely there,” Zorian insisted stubbornly. He knew what his marker was telling him. “It’s right there in that biggest cave near the bottom of the cenote – the one that looks natural instead of being artificially dug up by the chameleon drakes.”
“We already searched that one a million times with everything we could think of,” Kirma said, sounding very annoyed with him. “Torun even risked sending one of his rarer eyes in there, the one that can see through solid objects. There is nothing there, okay!? Your legacy is malfunctioning.”
Zorian sighed. There was no point in arguing about this, anymore.
“I need to get physical access to that cave,” he told Zach. “I’m sure I can find it, but I need to be actually there, not watching things through a divination screen or a remote sensor.”
“Got it,” Zach said, rising to his feet and dusting himself off. “I’ll deal with the lizards, you just stay behind me and keep them from flanking me or something.”
“Not so fast, you two,” Daimen told them. “Do you honestly think we would just stay on the sidelines and watch you either get horribly killed or claim the orb for yourselves? That’s a lose-lose proposition. We came here together, and we’ll execute this assault together as well.”
“This is stupid,” Kirma complained.
“We’re doing it anyway,” Daimen said. “If Zorian says the orb is there, it’s there. However, let’s not charge into the cenote like idiots. I’d rather induce them to swarm out and blunder into a trap. Here’s what we’re going to do…”
* * *
In the depths of the Kothic jungle, a fierce battle was raging. On one side there were nearly a hundred chameleon drakes charging in defense of their homes and young, and on the other side was a group of 19 people that had brazenly thrown irritating gas into the cenote to flush them out. Though the chameleon drakes looked brutish, they were not dumb. They knew they were being provoked, but they also knew they had to answer this challenge. This wasn’t the first time someone had tried to take their cenote habitat away from them, and it wouldn’t be the last.
Daimen’s group had set up a minefield between themselves and the cenote when they had provoked the chameleon drakes, but they had underestimated their opponents. Rather than launch a frontal charge at Daimen’s group, the chameleon drakes split their group into two halves and charged at them in two wide arcs, aiming to hit their flanks from both directions.
One might think the drakes had spotted the trap and reacted accordingly, but Zorian could peer into their minds and knew they hadn’t. Cold, hard experience had taught this particular group not to face their enemies head on if they could avoid it, especially if they were human.
The two groups crashed into each other and the chameleon drakes came out for the worse in the process. They were impressive beasts, fast and strong, but their strengths were most pronounced when attacking from an ambush. Their virtual invisibility did not work well if they were constantly on the move and the lightning-fast tongue attack they liked to use as an opening strike was less effective on a creature that expected it.
It didn’t help that Daimen’s group had several powerful mages, including Zach.
With a practiced movement, Zorian fired a glittering orange star at the chameleon drake in front of him. The large reptile reacted with impressive agility, throwing itself to the side to avoid the projectile and folding its front claws over its face to protect its eyes from the imminent explosion. And the explosion did come, just like the chameleon drake predicted, singeing its scales but not doing any truly critical damage.
It landed right on its feet with the nimbleness of a housecat, its four conical eyes whirring around, each in its own direction, in an attempt to reorient itself. Finally, it fixed its front two eyes on Zorian, the other two eyes twitching about for any hint of an attack from behind and it opened its large, toothy mouth wide open.
It was the mistake that Zorian had been waiting for. He launched a force lance at the chameleon drake and then immediately followed it with a double-layered shield around himself, casting them so quickly that it almost appeared as if he cast two spells simultaneously. The chameleon drake shot its spear-like tongue at Zorian, punching through one layer of his shield but failing to penetrate the second. Before it could retract its tongue for another go, however, the force lance hit it straight in the throat through its open mouth, bypassing the tough scales that protected its body.
The drake dropped on the ground immediately, kicking and thrashing about like it was having a seizure, kicking up plumes of dust in its death throes. Zorian spent a second to make sure it was down for good and then turned his attention to the rest of the targets.
He was just in time to see Chassanah stumble over an ill-placed rock and fall to the ground some distance away from him. His opponent, one of the slightly smaller chameleon drakes that only barely reached 3 meters in length, immediately took advantage of this to try and pounce at him.
Fortunately, Zorian had his golems scattered through the entire group, and one was nearby. The golem, devoid of self-preservation and acting under Zorian’s telepathic orders, launched itself at the chameleon drake with a full-body tackle. It crashed into the chameleon drake’s flank, causing it to veer off-course and giving Chassanah enough time to recover and get back to his feet.
“You okay, old man?” Zorian asked him, running up to him to make sure he didn’t hit his head in the fall or something. The chameleon drake seemed to be busy slamming his golem repeatedly into the ground, outraged that its interference had costed it its kill.
“I’m fine,” he said, shaking his head. “How embarrassing. Here I am, lecturing the younger generation about the need for modesty and caution and whatnot, and then I make a stupid mistake like this. Bah! It’s true as they say, you learn things all your life and still die a fool.”
Looking around the battlefield, Zorian realized that the chameleon drakes were getting beaten back at every front. On one side, Orissa was using her bees to attack the sensitive eyes of the drakes, making them flail around in panic as they attempted to dislodge such tiny opponents from themselves. Daimen and other members of his team then finished off the blinded drakes by focusing their fire on them one at a time. On the other, Zach disdained any sort of fancy tactics and simply used a pair of floating black swords to slice any chameleon drake that came close to pieces. The swords seemed to pass through the beasts’ tough hide without resistance, killing them instantly. The drakes eventually grew fearful to even approach him, choosing instead to pursue other targets.
Soon, the chameleon drakes seemed to collectively realize that the confrontation wasn’t going well for them and started to retreat. Amusingly, some of them chose to retreat directly through the minefield that they had missed in the initial charge, which resulted in another couple of fatalities among their number without Daimen’s group needing to do anything to make it happen. Only a few died before the rest learned to stay clear of that area, however.
Taking stock of the situation after the battle, Zorian noted that no one in Daimen’s group died in the fighting, so this could be safely described as a resounding victory. Even though things could have gone a lot smoother than this, in his opinion.
However, there was a problem. While the chameleon drakes retreated, they did not flee entirely. They simply withdrew towards the cenote and then stopped. They seemed unwilling to give up their home, even if they knew they were beaten.
They started hissing loudly in their direction, puffing themselves up to look bigger and making threatening movement towards them.
“Are… are they trying to intimidate us or something?” Daimen asked incredulously.
“I think so, yeah,” Zorian said.
“They lost a fight and now they’re resorting to threats instead? That’s amusingly outrageous,” Torun said. “I guess there is no harm in trying, from their perspective. If it works, great. If it doesn’t, eh… it was worth a try.”
The threatening display didn’t dissuade them from advancing, of course. The orb was down there, so getting access to the cenote was a must. However, when they started moving towards the cenote again, the chameleon drakes changed their behavior. They stopped trying to intimidate them and instead threw their heads into the air and started to… wail.
Zorian did not know how to describe it. It wasn’t really a wail in the human sense, but the sound was loud, repetitive and pitiful. And all the chameleon drakes were doing it in unison. It was like the entire group in front of them was cursing the heavens for abandoning them.
“Damn, these things are actually making me feel sorry for them a little,” Daimen complained. “I kind of feel like a villain here.”
“They’re not crying,” Zorian said, a terrible realization growing in the back of his head. “They’re calling for help. Summoning assistance.”
“They’re what?” Daimen frowned. “Kirma, can you check–”
The entire group stumbled as a tremor shook the earth beneath them, centered on the cenote.
“What the hell was that!?” Daimen demanded. It wasn’t clear who he was talking to, but it was Kirma who eventually answered, after consulting her lotus device.
“The water in the cenote,” she said. “It’s churning…”
Then Zorian felt it. Before, the cenote felt mostly dead to his senses, and even scrying from the group failed to locate anything of interest. Now, however, Zorian could feel a mind dwelling there. Something big, mean…
“Okay, tactical retreat, tactical retreat,” Zorian said gesturing everyone to start retreating from the cenote. He noticed that the chameleon drakes had stopped wailing and instead looked rather expectant and… almost gleeful. “We have something seriously big and hostile coming up from there. I think–”
He didn’t have time to think. Something huge and dark blue unfolded itself out of the cenote. At first Zorian thought he was looking at some kind of animated tree or a giant sea anemone, but then the ‘branches’ stilled for a second and it became obvious what he was looking at.
It was a hydra. A really, really big one. Eight draconic-looking heads observed the world around it with interest, eventually zeroing in on the group of humans in the distance. Its eight mouths opened up slightly, exposing rows and rows of dagger-like teeth, and began to salivate.
“Oh,” said Zach happily in the resulting silence, his eyes shining with a fire that Zorian rarely saw in him. “Looks like I might have some actual fun here after all!”
As if reacting to his statement, the hydra opened all eight of its mouths and let loose a deafening roar.